Illustration by JR Fleming

How ‘BoJack Horseman’ Turns Comfort Television Into Existential Crisis

Wisecrack
Wisecrack
Nov 20, 2019 · 8 min read

By Ross McIndoe

“It’s not Ibsen, sure, but look — for a lot of people, life is just one long kick in the urethra. Sometimes when you get home from a long day of getting kicked in the urethra, you just want to watch a show about good, likable people who love each other, where, no matter what happens, at the end of the 30 minutes everything is going to turn out okay.”

This speech could easily be about How I Met Your Mother or Scrubs or Friends or any sitcom with scores of fans who will watch it over and over again, despite not thinking it’s especially good. In fact, it’s the character BoJack Horseman in his titular show’s opening scene, describing the sitcom that made him a star — Horsin’ Around.

In Horsin’ Around, a nineties comedy evocative of The Cosby Show, BoJack played the bubbly, gold-hearted father figure to three adorable orphans. The show’s sugary tone, broad humor, and familiar rhythms made BoJack rich and famous, but even thirty years later, he’s still haunted by the question of whether it was really any good.

Urethras aside, BoJack’s defense of his show is pretty much universally relatable: Sometimes life is too damn hard and we just want to retreat to somewhere more cheerful. Real life is messy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible. Bad things happen without warning or reason, justice doesn’t always prevail, and a lot of things just… are. After a long day of toiling against the tide of these realities, sitcoms give us a place to drift off to where, for twenty minutes at least, everything makes sense.

We don’t want the high art of Norwegian dramatic playwright Henrik Ibsen, or even the television equivalent.

As much as we love The Sopranos and Mad Men for their psychological complexity, thematic richness, and deep, ever-evolving characters, we love plenty of shows precisely for their lack of these qualities. It’s because Friends is not The Sopranos that we want to watch it at 2pm when we’re hungover or 2am when we can’t sleep.

With the action set almost exclusively within lived-in, comfortable locations like bars, coffee shops, and apartment living rooms, these shows keep us nestled in places we’ve come to feel at home. Minor changes might occur episode to episode, as the overarching plots are driven forward, but the shows themselves remain fundamentally static. Marriages, promotions, and other developments are only skin-deep. The relationships between the central cast don’t really change, and the characters themselves don’t either.

This structure makes them easy to consume (you can dip in at any point and know exactly what to expect) but, more importantly, it blesses them with the comforting quality that BoJack describes: the promise that, whatever happens, everything will have gone back to normal by the end of the episode. Comfortable, familiar, always the same.

“This is a situation comedy, no one watches the show to feel feelings,” Herb Kazzaz, the creator of Horsin’ Around, tells BoJack during the show’s peak years. “Life is depressing enough already.”

As a former sitcom star, BoJack knows this battle from the inside. He spent years pretending to be a cheer-filled paternal goofball, masking his true nature with a brightly colored sweater and a big, fake grin. At the end of every episode, he would recite some cheesy platitude and then return to blocking out his problems with sex, drugs, and alcohol. And each week, he watched an audience eat it up, every bit as eager for an escape from reality as he was.

How bad do things have to be for bad puns and clichés to be treated like salvation?

In the conversation with Herb, BoJack is appealing to his friend to push the show into grittier, more meaningful territory, while also asking for validation about his own skills as an actor. Herb gently talks him down, largely because BoJack wants to be talked down. During the show’s run and long after its finale, BoJack pines for the chance to prove his value and tackle something of real substance, only to retreat back to his safety zone of vodka and Horsin’ Around reruns.

Having lived the most significant years of his life on a sitcom set, BoJack has come to understand the utter vapidness of this inert world. As much as he longs to return endlessly to the place in which nothing ever changes, he is tormented by the fact that this is exactly what his life has become.

In the opening credits of the show, we see BoJack rising from his bed and sliding through a series of scenes in a detached, half-drugged haze. The backgrounds change with each passing season, but the spaced-out, unreal quality remains. At the end, he always finds himself blinking into the sun on another lazy day, unsure if he even moved at all. Then, he plunges underwater, hinting that he might continue on this carousel until the very end.

That’s what the characters in BoJack Horseman do: They go round and round on the same interior tracks, always ending up back where they started.

Diane agonizes over her integrity: whether it’s the societal impact of her Girl Croosh videos or her role in enabling BoJack’s bad behavior. The sense that her life and her work should mean more always haunts her.

Princess Carolyn tries to keep a whole world’s worth of plates spinning, attempting to unplug from her job as an agent/manager enough to scrape together a life of her own, complete with her own porcupine baby, Ruthie. Yet, she’s always pulled back to her work by the slightest tug on her competitive instincts.

BoJack tries to be a better, more meaningful version of himself — from taking a serious dramatic role to entering rehab — only to torpedo his own process in one way or another.

Each season, they expend huge amounts of energy trying to overhaul their lives, scrambling to stay ahead of the anxieties that might catch up with them at any minute. Each season, they wind up pretty much back where they began. Superficial changes take effect — new jobs, new relationships, new homes — but the doubts that stalk them have, at best, been beaten back momentarily. They are, ultimately, still themselves, still riddled with the same problems.

Todd is still a manchild, Mr. Peanutbutter still lives in (mostly) blissful ignorance, Diane is still the compulsive, fundamentally-unhappy moralist, and Princess Carolyn is still the obsessive careerist. And BoJack, even thirty years later, is still “the horse from Horsin’ Around.

Unlike in a cheesy sitcom, this unshakeable status quo isn’t the result of thin characterization or the desire to hold viewers in the same familiar place. One of the masterstrokes of BoJack Horseman is imbuing each one of its central characters with such depth that they can carry an episode by themselves, whatever emotional terrain it might require them to cover. By letting in all the darkness that traditional sitcoms block out with artificial sunshine, BoJack Horseman pushes into the parts of its characters that would otherwise go unrealized.

It’s telling that Mr. Peanutbutter, the show’s sitcom-iest character, provides one of the best descriptions of the show’s central crises.

“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t to search for meaning, it’s to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

That’s what Horsin’ Around was engineered to be: distracting, unimportant nonsense. And BoJack’s knowledge of that, and of everything it was meant to distract from, terrorizes him. He knows that, as soon as the end credits roll, his reality will come rushing in. By keeping himself locked in the show, he tries to prevent this from happening, but only ends up breeding a sitcom-esque stasis in his real life.

The sense of stasis in BoJack Horseman also doesn’t offer the viewer any kind of comfort. The unchanging nature of things becomes a torturous existential trap: A bitter and continual reminder of the fact that, no matter what happens today, you’ll wake up the same person tomorrow. No promotion, no marriage, no big symbolic “change” will take you away from who you are.

At times, this makes BoJack Horseman one of the most devastating shows on television. But its focus on the overpowering inertia of regular life also makes every centimeter gained feel monumental.

In the most recent season, we see BoJack accept his greying hair and finally agree to give Mr. Peanutbutter that “crossover episode.” Diane goes back on antidepressants, even though she knows it may lead to her gaining weight and getting less work done. These minor changes represent mountains conquered: Both characters made themselves vulnerable to the world around them, opening up the possibility of meaningful growth.

BoJack Horseman refuses to offer the easy answers of a classic sitcom. In fact, it actively attacks them. In a sitcom, whenever things seem to have strayed too far from happy normality, some saving grace comes riding in to reset things. In reality, as in BoJack, normality is not necessarily, and certainly not always happy, and there is no guaranteed resolution coming at the twenty-minute mark.

We are, as Diane tells BoJack early on, each responsible for our own happiness. And, as BoJack replies, that is kind of horrifying, given how much trouble even being responsible for our own breakfast can be.

But there is also something beautiful to Diane’s point, and the show never shies away from this in the name of easy nihilism. Stewing on the pointlessness of it all is easy. Giving up, lying on the couch, and watching reruns will always be an option. But it’s not the only one.

In the second season, BoJack makes a conscious attempt to overhaul his personality by plugging in to a series of chipper, metaphor-mixing self-help tapes. They don’t work because their attempts at instantaneous change only really serve to tinker about on the surface of a person, like a smile painted sloppily on the outermost layer of the self. He tries to take up running as a part of his self-improvement quest, but rarely gets far.

At the end of that season’s final episode, he takes to the hill outside his home once again. He grunts, complains, and collapses almost immediately, only to be roused by a voice above him.

“It gets easier.”

It’s the baboon (or macaque?) who has been quietly jogging through each episode.

“Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day, that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”

Our lives, like BoJack’s, will mostly remain uncomfortably sitcom-esque. Most of our days won’t contribute anything much to any overarching narrative. The things that bother us about ourselves and those around us will mostly remain the same, with real change happening so incrementally as to be almost invisible. Most days, we’ll wake up feeling like everything has been reset, ready to slide through another series of familiar scenes while the same theme song plays.

But if we keep going at it, keep turning up each day, we might get somewhere.

“Okay,” BoJack replies.

Wisecrack

The low brow of high brow.

Wisecrack

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Wisecrack

Wisecrack covers the intersection of culture, philosophy, and criticism.

Wisecrack

Wisecrack

The low brow of high brow.

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